Jim Rounsevell: If he builds it…

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Photo: Christian Hommel Photo: Christian Hommel

Jim Rounsevell is after architecture deeply rooted in place, built “for our time with what we have, with care, and with discipline.” His commitment to aesthetics, design, and a progressive future for our city can often lead him to be, admittedly, “that crazy, passionate person in any given city planning meeting.”

Rounsevell graduated  with a degree in anthropology from Grinnell College and has been designing in Charlottesville for the past decade, and for his own firm since 1998. Though he started out as an anthropology major who liked taking pictures, ultimately, while in a masters program at the Pratt Institute of Interior Design, “two wonderful teachers told me to get out of there and get into an architecture program,” he said. The teachers were architects themselves and recognized a latent talent in the young student.

Today, Rounsevell’s modern, resource-conscious designs have garnered prestigious awards, including a Residential Design Award from Washington, D.C.’s AIA and Washingtonian Magazine and from the Virginia AIA for his Poplar Terraces. Rounsevell was also chosen as the lead consultant for the City of Charlottesville’s ongoing Belmont Bridge design project.

Rounsevell rankles a bit at the mention of the term “sustainable architecture.” He disagrees with the notion that eco-building should be a separate movement. “Sustainable building practices should simply be ingrained in what we all do as architects,” he said. “While recycled glass countertops are cool and reclaimed wood from the bottom of Lake Michigan is beautiful—it’s all just ‘eco bling.’” What’s most important, according to Rounsevell, are design principles that reduce energy usage. “Limited-income families could save $400 a month on heating and put that money towards groceries or new job skills. Building homes where this is possible should be our focus,” he said.

Rounsevell also has a few things to say about the legacy of Mr. Jefferson as it looms large over our city’s architectural landscape. “If Jefferson were alive today, he’d be a modern architect; he wouldn’t be building in brick with white trim,” Rounsevell said. “What Jefferson was doing in his lifetime was very progressive—he was very aware of his materials, how many bricks he was using, and he was synthesizing French styles with British Palladian architecture. It was very of the moment.”

And Rounsevell is all for progress. In fact, he insists on it. In partnership with Pete O’Shea and Sara Wilson of Siteworks, Rounsevell has developed an ambitious vision for the Belmont Bridge reconstruction project. “Building another highway overpass would be going backward,” Rounsevell said. Instead, the team is building off of the winning design of the 2010 community-driven bridge redesign project, and is proposing a vehicular underpass and a pedestrian- and bike-friendly cable-stayed bridge. The underpass would not only revert the east end of the Downtown Mall to its 20th century condition, but act as an impetus for the “rebirth of a vital commercial district” in Belmont.

“This is not about my ego. I want to do the right thing, the best thing for the City of Charlottesville. It’s a complex project, and it’s not going to be cheap to build,” admitted Rounsevell. “But we as a city need to build up the collective will that we need to get this done. It could just be fabulous.”

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